It’s estimated that there may be something like 300 sextillion stars in the known universe. (For those of you who are wondering, that is a 3 followed by 23 zeroes…) It’s also postulated that there could be about 50 million planets which could support and foster intelligent life. All of this of course is predicated upon any number of assumed constants and assumptions about our universe. Of course, we use the terminology “observable universe” because all of these factors are based on what we experience from our very tiny speck of a planet. Because in reality, there could be a limitless horizon beyond what astronomers and physicists can see…
In our own neck of the cosmic woods, our sun is apparently pretty small compared to other observable stars. However it is big enough to hold 1.3 million Earths inside with room to spare.
It sort of puts things into perspective when we think about our place in the universe.
Now, outside of Earth’s ability to support and foster intelligent life, our planet is largely unremarkable. In the grand scheme of things, we are a very small place. And in our complex, and seemingly quantum tininess, we simply continue to spin insignificantly and quietly in the vast beyond, and exist. When we consider all of this, it might make us wonder what the meaning of our lives—our histories—even our presence could amount to in a universe which is so largesse.
We probably don’t need the musings of astronomers and physicists to know how very small we are… The Psalmist speaks rightly, I think, when he writes: “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars you have set in their courses. What is humanity that you should be mindful of them (Ps. 8:4)?” It’s likely that we don’t even need to consider much beyond our own city, let alone our planet or universe to know how tiny we really are. This, of course leads to even more questions, like: If God has called all of this wondrous universe into being—what do I matter?
It’s an overwhelming question, especially with how easily our lives can become background noise in a larger world. I suppose it gets at that common need in us to know and be known—especially by God. It might lead us to wonder why in the world God would care for a relationship with us. With all of the grand things that happen in the universe and the very immensity of it… And in answer to that, I have to say that I have no really good response.
But then there was this one moment…this one time when all of Heaven and the whole of Creation turned its attention our way. It was the moment when God and all that is waited with bated breath for a young girl in Nazareth to say “Yes.” After all, even in this immense universe, she had a choice…
This wasn’t just agreement to God’s plan—it was a choice that Mary made to acquiesce to God. Honestly, it might have been easier at that time in history to have said “no.” The fact is, we don’t need to put on our historical lenses to know the cultural stigmas of being pregnant out of wedlock…
All the same, in all the universe, she was willing to be the mother of the Son of God. And in her agreement she represents humanity’s “yes” to God as well. It’s a shining example of humanity’s ability to forgo selfishness, and says something of what we can be at our best. In this case, something far greater than our little place in Creation.
In the same way, it says everything about God. Here we see that God chooses to take immense risk to not only be close to us, but to join us in humanity in the self-giving act of the Incarnation. By this self-emptying, the God of all the cosmos becomes as tiny as any one of us.
We’re told that his birth happened at the height of Rome’s power. Aside from rumors, no one but a mad king and three wise men were paying any attention for signs. There was also a mass census which had everyone in busy disarray. It seems an awfully big world for such a seemingly small event as a single birth. Ironically, in John’s Gospel we’re told that
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him (Jn 1:10-11).
All the same, we see God’s longing for such intimacy with us, that God would come to us in the form of a child—to be with us, and be one of us.
What this meant at the time for Israel, was that God suddenly had a face, and a personal, utterable name. God was no longer only represented by the Temple in Jerusalem. The transcendent, far off God was now so immanent as to have a home, a mother and friends. In fact, God was so very immanent that almost everyone missed him being here.
But just by being here with us, Jesus proves God’s love for us. What’s more, when Jesus returned to the Father in his ascension—he brought with him what it is to be human. So that now, not only does God dwell with God’s people—something of us is part of God. And so, in some very mysterious way, the Creator of all the vastness of the universe knows us, and loves us and is forever with us.
So in the Incarnation…this way in which God breaks into our reality, we’re called to more than simple remembrances of past things. Christmas and Advent are no longer opportunities to look backward. Because for us Jesus, the one who is coming into the world, is both historical, but also the one we hope for and wait for—he is also our constant in life. A life which is chaos, and unpredictable—even frightening in its asymmetry. Life is broken and beautiful and because of the mystery of Jesus’ participation in humanity, it is also made somehow holy. Because in him we find the response to Creation’s longing. A longing perhaps most beautifully expressed in the familiar hymn:
“In sorrow that the ancient curse should doom to death a universe, you came, O Savior, to set free your own in glorious liberty. When this old world drew on toward night, you came; but not in splendor bright, not as a monarch, but the child of Mary, blameless mother mild.”
So tonight, for a brief moment, in the hush after the din of shopping; in the midst of anticipation for the magic of Christmas morning—we wait and watch. We make a place in our hearts for more than the Christ Child, but a place for him who is to return.
Just like those who waited for the Messiah to come in his first advent, we wait for his return in a second kind of advent. We look for him to break upon this world once again in glorious light—heralded by a firmament full of angelic hosts. And once again all that is in the universe will turn attention toward our little place in Creation.
Because just like that vast expansive universe, and all of the most finite things in existence—we ache to see the beloved return. After all, I imagine that we’re all a little lost, beaten up and tired in this big-big world. Even so, we wait with hope for one we have known and knows us. We wait for him to once again draw us out of darkness and hold us up to the Light. “O Come, thou Dayspring from on high, and cheer us by thy drawing nigh; disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadow put to flight. Rejoice, Rejoice! Emmanuel will come to thee…”